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Utilizing Strengths and Interests: What’s New is Old

I recently read an article about a school in Florida that is being promoted as using a unique method to teach children with autism. So, naturally, I wanted to read more.  Imagine my surprise when I read they were using children’s individual interests and strengths to engage and teach children.

This isn’t new! We have known for years that if you engage a child on the autism spectrum in their area of interest (or some might say, obsession), your connection to that child will be enhanced. Actually, I would say that goes for most people not just individuals on the spectrum.

As a result, there is the opportunity for social engagement and interaction, communication, increased attention and participation from the child. Learning is enhanced on any number of levels.  How often does Temple Grandin, arguably one of the most recognized adults with autism, talk about how she’s made a career out of doing what she loves and has had an interest in by having her strengths fostered?  At the same time she acknowledged that having been pushed to do things she didn’t want to do and was not interested in, was an important part of her learning to develop skills she has now.

It seems like each discipline or profession talks about these ideas with a different language and reinvents it as their own. Individuals who end up relabeling ideas with catchy, marketable terms get credit for ideas that have been around for years.  I guess kudos to them for getting the ideas out to the mainstream.

What’s interesting to me is the paradox of meeting individual needs by doing the same thing for everyone. If it’s individually designed, how can it apply to everyone?

Different theoretical orientations often lead to the use of different strategies. We can talk about following a child’s interest versus rewarding them with their interest. But, these are quite different philosophically and practically. What might work for one child may be entirely different for another. What works on one day may be different from another day even for the same child. And, what works in one context (e.g., physical or social environment), may not work in another.

Some children who are severely challenged in relating to the world may not yet have observable interests. I have worked with many families who say their child just sits and does nothing. It may be a matter of having good observational skills to see what a child might gaze at in order to find something of interest to them.  For other families I’ve worked with, they are concerned that if they work with their child’s interests, they will get obsessed and not do whatever the task is that is being asked of them.

There is a constant balancing act between the needs, wants, and interests of the individual and the goals of the institution.  Once again, I would say this is the same for most children. How many kids like studying a subject they don’t have an interest in, but have to do it anyways as part of the school curriculum?

My hat goes off to the school in Florida for integrating the idea of utilizing a child’s interest when so many school programs have focused only on behavioral based interventions. But these do not have to be mutually exclusive.

In the ideal world, I wish we could get over trying to find  “the answer,” or “the approach,” get over reinventing the wheel and simply look at each individual person to determine what they specifically need. Human beings are complicated, whether or not they have any diagnosis, so expecting any one program, school, approach, philosophy or strategy to work for everyone simply can’t happen.

Utilizing Strengths and Interests: What’s New is Old

Diane Yapko, MA

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APA Reference
Yapko, D. (2010). Utilizing Strengths and Interests: What’s New is Old. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Sep 2010
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